The Only Ones: Another Boy, Another Planet
Nina Antonia, Uncut, October 2005
If you thought Pete Doherty and The Libertines were the ultimate in glorious, shambling rock ‘n’ roll then try THE ONLY ONES, the brilliant late-’70s band led by junkie-poet Peter Perrett, new wave’s own Syd Barrett.
PETE DOHERTY, troubled erstwhile leader of the Libertines, wants to pay tribute to Peter Perrett, troubled erstwhile leader of the Only Ones, but our phone line is so bad I can hardly hear him. It’s May 2005 and he’s calling from Doghouse Studios in Henley-upon-Thames, where Doherty’s latest band of gypsies, Babyshambles, are recording an album. Tabloid magnet and notorious junkie Doherty, who rarely if ever gives interviews, sounds weak to the point of collapse. But he’s trying to tell me something.
“I don’t want to sound like a schoolboy,” he gushes, “but Peter Perrett is amazing!”
Even on a mobile phone connection as poor as this, his awe is discernible, although prior to meeting Perrett in 2004 he hadn’t heard The Only Ones’ music — Doherty was aware of him only via Perrett’s two sons, musicians both, and through folklore: Perrett the reclusive enigma,the Syd Barrett of new wave.
“I’d just superficially known about Peter from myths and romance. He’s an Arcadian genius on the Albion diet,” he says, before fading away.
Back in the ’70s, Perrett, frontman of the legendary Only Ones, was hailed as one of England’s finest ever rock lyricists. He was the golden boy of the music press until heroin addiction consumed him. After the break-up of the band in 1980, precious little was heard of him again, save for rumours of the occasional drug bust and the odd guest appearance with the likes of Johnny Thunders. To someone as hooked on the allure of addiction as Pete Doherty, Perrett is an icon. What Doherty might not understand is that Perrett loved the music more than anything else. The drugs were just a substitute.
Doherty tries once more to contact me, to pay further lip service to his hero. He leaves a couple of indistinct messages on my answering machine. One is a wall of noise, the other a ghostly whisper — “Where are you?” he croaks — that makes him sound like a lost, little boy. It’s quite sad.
I don’t hear from Doherty again, but I do see him splattered over every newspaper, the omnipresent tabloid junkie, a latter day Sid Vicious with a supermodel girlfriend. But there’s the difference between Perrett and Doherty, Syd and Sid. Perrett’s like the setting sun, Doherty is in The Sun.
It’s an ugly new tabloid world, one that Perrett has no interest in. He’s granted me a rare interview in his rented home in south London. The crumbling gothic mansion in Forest Hill where Doherty himself stayed last year has been taken over by property developers. Perrett’s still reeling at having had his home of the last 27 years snatched away. It’s where he raised his boys, Jamie (21) and Peter Jnr (25), who until recently played guitar and bass in Babyshambles.
Perrett, now 53, looks more frail than elegantly wasted when he comes to the door, although mentally he’s as sharp as ever. A ’60s child, he sits cross-legged on the floor of the lounge as he rolls a joint.
“Music is the one thing I enjoy more than drugs,” he tells me, peeking out from under a long, still-dark fringe that matches his eyes. “In a way, I’ve used drugs as a withdrawal from music, to kill the pain of not having music in my life.”
Perrett’s from the old school of poetic hedonism, before hard drugs became a feature of council estates.
“When I originally got into drugs,” he thinks back, “the first addicts I met were Tim Hardin and Lou Reed, the Stones, people like that… It was people being what the word ‘libertine’ is thought to be: people who want to experience the various pleasures in life. Throughout the ’80s our money started running out and you’d see people on council estates that had got into hard drugs. Some of them took drugs for the first time in prison. Government policy is counterproductive; it sends people headlong into the abyss. I started meeting all these scuzzy people who steal things when your back is turned and have what is thought of as the typical junkie mentality.”
Life wasn’t meant to be this way for Perrett. Born in 1952, he was a chess-playing prodigy with an immeasurably high IQ. Going to boarding school was meant to be a reward for his scholastic achievements, but it turned out to be a torment of bullying. By 15, he was hyped-up on rock’n’roll rebellion. He served his musical apprenticeship seeing Pink Floyd at the 14-hour Technicolor Dream in Alexandra Palace, the Stones at Hyde Park, and his hero Bob Dylan at the Isle Of Wight festival in August ’69.
Perrett’s companion at most of these events was fellow Dylan fan Xenoulla “Zena” Kakoulli, two years his senior. It was Zena who nurtured Peter’s musical ambitions, teaching him how to play the guitar. After running away from home, they were forced into marriage by conservative parents. It was the last attempt to appease social norms by the young couple.
In summer 1970, the Perretts enrolled at North London Polytechnic, Peter using his grant cheque as a down payment to begin dealing hashish. Selling gear to his friends provided a steady income and enabled him to concentrate on writing songs.
By ’72 he’d formed England’s Glory with drummer Jon Newey and Zena’s brother Harry on bass. With the proceeds from Peter’s dealing, they made a limited edition album to send out to record companies. Comparisons were made to The Velvet Underground, Perrett sounding enough like Lou Reed to almost convince the NME‘s star scribe Nick Kent that he was listening to unreleased Velvets outtakes. Despite England’s Glory finding a champion in EMI A&R man David Sandison, they failed to secure a deal and went their separate ways.
The Perretts were suburban seditionaries: Zena designed vinyl fetish wear admired by Vivienne Westwood, which in turn aroused the interest of Malcolm McLaren. The future Sex Pistols manager made it plain to Peter he was looking for a singer to front his “raunchy Bay City Rollers”.
He wasn’t interested. Although he’d started scouting around for musicians, encountering a guitarist from Bristol called John Perry, most of Perrett’s aspirations were supine — he had a loving wife, several mistresses and a hashish empire. Until, that is, he was scuppered by the police, who confiscated his hash and gardening scales, not to mention a personal stash of Colombian grass, Nepalese Temple Balls, Afghani and Lebanese.
Facing a possible five-year sentence, Perrett became anxious to work on his music for posterity. He recruited Perry, ex-Spooky Tooth drummer Mike Kellie and bassist Alan Mair, who’d found early fame with The Beatstalkers, Scotland’s equivalent of The Beatles. Zena, meanwhile, became the band’s manager. Once Peter set his mind to something he was voracious, be it music, drugs or women. Everything was a rush: crashing his Cortina with Kellie in the back, using cocaine, taking smack at the weekends. Perrett was caught between the ’60s and ’70s, between the idealistic and the amoral.
The name “The Only Ones” came to him in a dream in 1976, while Keith Richards, a friend of a business associate, materialised in real life. The Rolling Stone agreed to produce a track called ‘Prisoners’ for the band. A rehearsal followed in a rented house in Chelsea belonging to the actor Donald Sutherland. As Richards pored over the chord sequence, Perrett matched him line for line of cocaine.
“I didn’t know what we were meant to do,” says Perrett, “or if we were supposed to join in. I was more interested in taking drugs. I suppose it would have been good to have our first thing produced by him, but it didn’t mean anything to me. There were some people who were interested in us at the beginning just because we knew Keith Richards. I was more interested in the musical revolution going on. I found it quite exciting the way the music business was being turned upside down by punk.”
Ironically, ‘Prisoners’ was shelved after Richards was busted in Toronto in 1977. Perrett faced his own judicial ordeal at the Inner London Crown Court. His character witness was former England’s Glory champion David Sandison, who almost a decade earlier had stood in the same courtroom to plead clemency for Brian Jones. Perrett fared better than the deceased Stone, paying a £1000 fine rather than go to jail for a year.
At a time of punk minimalism, The Only Ones were, pace Television, the consummate musicians of the era. Perry was the saviour of the liquid guitar lick, Perrett the avatar of rock poetry at its most sublime. In January ’77, they secured a six-week residency at London’s Speakeasy, where Perrett met doomed ex-New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders for the first time.
“As soon as Johnny spoke to me, I was interested,” he recalls. “I made a joke about how ‘I’m allowed to give you coke but my manager doesn’t allow me to give people smack, so I won’t offer you any.’ We became friends. Pretty soon after, I got to know that he was into smack. We started scoring together.”
While Perrett was on his narcotic honeymoon, The Only Ones began to garner critical acclaim on the strength of their live shows and a growing legion of disciples. Record company interest followed.
“Seymour Stein of Sire Records went to the trouble of taking me to dinner then taking me back to his place,” he recalls. “He let me get him so stoned he was unconscious on the floor. Chris Blackwell from Island flew to a gig in the Midlands to say he’d match any other offer. When I went to his place, he got me a bag of grass. He was my type of person. He said, ‘It doesn’t affect my interest in you, but are you a junkie?’ I wasn’t at the time, but I should’ve realised that the fact I could speak to him about things like that would be important later. But I was so arrogant I thought I was going to make it anyway. In the end we signed with CBS — that orange label on Dylan’s records had an emotional pull, yet they were just owned by bureaucrats.”
In April 1978, The Only Ones’ debut single on CBS, ‘Another Girl Another Planet’, was released. Three minutes of exhilarating pop, it remains the ultimate example of how to combine mainstream appeal with experimental zeal. But it wasn’t a hit, which took the wind out of both the band and record company’s sails. But that was The Only Ones in a nutshell: loved by music critics and a cult following; too rarefied for the public and ineptly handled by CBS. There was little reward for their three superlative albums. Morbidly effervescent debut The Only Ones reached No 22 in May ’78. Even Serpents Shine was darker, peaking at 42 in March ’79, and saw Perrett start his retreat from the mainstream. Patchy final shot Baby’s Got A Gun stalled at 37 in April 1980 but contained moments of rare beauty such as the harrowing ‘The Big Sleep’ and mordant ‘Why Don’t You Kill Yourself?’
With each disappointment, Perrett’s heroin use increased. While promoting Baby’s Got A Gun he told Sounds journalist Dave McCullough: “I don’t like it when people contact us with drugs. It upsets my mother for one thing. She keeps inspecting my arms. It’s bad for someone like Alan [Mair] who doesn’t even drink. It would be terrible to get the sort of reputation Keith Richards has got — a celebrated junkie.”
Then in 1980 came a support slot with The Who in the US. At the first show in San Diego, John Perry noticed The Only Ones’ name had been omitted from the tour posters. It was a bad omen given substance by Roger Daltrey, who decided the band weren’t pally enough and showed them the exit. Zena attempted to organise extra gigs but it was all over — especially once Perrett ran down an obstreperous car park attendant who’d got in his way. With baby, mistress and wife in tow, he fled the country. His last contact with CBS America was a phone call to tell him he was facing charges of attempted murder in California.
He never returned. Mourned by the faithful, a couple of farewell gigs followed in the UK. Melody Maker‘s Steve Sutherland opined that “anyone out there who never bought an Only Ones record is directly responsible for the death of one of Britain’s best ever bands, and personally I’ll never forgive you.” These are sentiments that Perrett still treasures.
The ’80s were a washout for Perrett, who suffered a debilitating bout of Hepatitis B and resorted to dealing to maintain his habit. Thunders, who died in ’91, was one of his few visitors during this time. “Throughout the ’80s, whenever he saw me he kept saying that I had to get playing again, that it was a real waste of talent,” he says. “The last time I saw him was maybe ’86. I was really ill, could hardly move. He came into the bedroom. I probably looked like Jesus Christ. I hadn’t shaved for ages, and my hair was tangled. He gave me a real lecture about how I couldn’t go on like this.”
Behind his steel-plated front door, Perrett was entombed by addiction. In the outside world, myth grew around the former Only One, comprised of rumour and speculation, kept alive by bootlegs, reissues and new releases. By the end of the decade though, Perrett had lost the bottle for dealing: “My family was more important to me than taking those risks. All the people we were associating with were involved in drugs, so even if we weren’t actually doing anything, just visiting them was dangerous.”
Hard drugs as a route to liberation — that’s the biggest lie of all, especially these days when there is no mystique left except for those in search of easy infamy. No wonder Peter Doherty was drawn to Peter Perrett. In early 2004, Perrett joined The Libertines onstage at London’s Rhythm Factory for a rendition of ‘Another Girl Another Planet’ before slipping once more into the shadows. By this point Doherty was telling the press Perrett would be producing ‘Killamangiro’, Babyshambles’ new single. This was news to Perrett, but he obliged anyway, although his production wasn’t used once his sons left Doherty’s mob and formed their own six-piece outfit, The Cuts.
Their father is proud of them, and he has good reason to be, for they have promise in abundance. As he says, “I just hope the boys get as much enjoyment out of music as I did.”
It’s four in the morning and time to stop talking. This is when Perrett is at his best. The rest of the world is asleep but he’s wide-eyed, dreaming of reaching his fans over the Internet and providing new music for them to download. It’s weird hearing the quintessential boho punk, the poet of squatland, acknowledging the MP3 era; like a character from Nic Roeg’s Performance adrift in cyberspace. It would be great if he were to make a return. A grand return.
“Take care,” he says as I leave. And I pause for a moment and tell him, “No, Peter, you take care.”
© Nina Antonia, 2005